Skip to main content

2011 Winner Dr. James Orbinski

James Orbinski

The 2011 Walter S. Tarnopolsky Award for outstanding contribution to the field of human rights went to Dr. James Orbinski, OC, MSC, MC, MA. Dr. Orbinski is Lana Professor Medicine and of Political Science at the University of Toronto. Among his many other achievements, as International President of Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) from 1998 to 2001, he launched its Access to Essential Medicines Campaign and accepted the 1999 Nobel Peace Prize awarded to MSF.

Because Dr. Orbinski was unable to attend the 2011 Annual Meeting in Halifax, the presentation and Tarnopolsky address took place at the University of Toronto on December 6, 2011. In dealing with equity, law, and global health, Dr. Orbinski explained the importance of telling stories of human suffering and understanding the broader political question: who gets what, when, and how? Legal and political institutions have historically not prevented mass genocide by Hitler’s Reich, by Stalin’s regime, or by tribal groups in Rwanda. But what, he asked, has been done recently?

Dr. Orbinski said that the right to life and health are achieving some legal recognition internationally. But first there must be the right to speak. In this regard, the creation of the International Criminal Court was a seminal human achievement: an institution created by politics which believes that no one is above the law when it brings indictments and registers convictions against war criminals for genocide and other war crimes.

One of the first acts of the ICC, he said, was to recognize the plight of victims, not just through kindness and sympathy, but through the provision of essential medicines, doctors, and non-medical assistance. He discussed the role of MSF at length, particularly during the period when he was its President. Dr. Orbinski also commented on the acute food shortage in Malawi, the impact of climate change on global health, and the health threats to many countries from unforeseen pandemics. He stressed the need for strong political leadership among Western nations throughout his presentation.

Dr. Orbinski’s talk was followed by a robust discussion with the lawyers, doctors, and medical students in attendance.